Tag Archives: Online Communities

Rewards and Achievements

Participation is its own reward, but public recognition is better. Build a system of rewards and achievements that makes sense and provides real benefits to your community members.

As promised, I am back from the visionary ether of what rewards and achievements could (and should) be. Today, I am looking at very practical ways to expand (or start) your rewards program that you can implement right away.

It’s pretty awesome to be part of a community of like-minded individuals who share your enthusiasm for a given project or technology. A lot of people get a kick out of that. Over time, top contributors emerge, and some sort of a meritocratic order forms. However, if you are hoping for vigorous growth and high levels of engagement early on, figuring out a meaningful way to reward desired behaviours would be a good use of your time.

If your mind immediately jumped to images of convoluted brand loyalty programs with miles or points which can be exchanged for a wide selection of goods or services, you may feel intimidated. Who has the budget and the time to manage all that? But fear not! There are ways to run an effective rewards and achievements program on the cheap, using the tools that you already have, and some creative thinking.

Step One: Find all the data

To reward people for things they have done, you need to know what they’ve done, how much of it, and when. This becomes easier ir you’ve already got a forum, because forum platforms usually  have reputation points management built in. Most often participants get rewarded a point or two for posting a message (whether an original thread or a response), and if their answer is selected as the “helpful” or the “correct” one by the original poster, there is a bonus of maybe five or ten points. There may be additional points earned for other in-forum behaviours, such as joining a group or following other users. Whatever it is, if you have an online forum, you have some sort of data to start from.

You may not realize that there are other sources of data that may be available to you. They may not be automated and easy to consume, but they are there. Here are a few examples:

  • User group attendees, speakers, and user group leads
  • Conference, webinar, and seminar attendees
  • Lists of bloggers who cover your products
  • List of people who reshare your content on Twitter and other social networks

Step Two: Reward the right people

By studying as many sources of data as you can, you will be able to identify the people who contribute more than average. The goal of a rewards system is to encourage these folks to do more: More blogging, more presentations, more learning, and more sharing.

By rewarding them publicly, you will also send the message to the other 90 percent of the community that you (and the company you work for) value all sorts of contributions, not just forum Q&A. You will be surprised what people come up with once they know that they can color outside the lines. I have seen volunteers creating video tutorials, writing whole books, creating free training coursework, and even fly to another country to help jumpstart a user group.

Your focus will be not on defining what you want the community to do, but rather keeping your eyes out for the reward-worthy actions and making a big deal out of every one. Find a cool new blog? Blog about it. Maybe even start a monthly “community blog roundup” where you link to that month’s community blog posts. Got a bunch of active user group leads? Interview them on your podcast if you have it, or mention them in a community newsletter at the very least.

Step Three: Find rewards worthy of your community

Now I am assuming that my readers are bootstrapping most of their community projects on the minimum budget. If you have more, bully for you, but we’ll be here, improvising if you don’t mind.

Here are a few low-budget ideas that you can implement today, on your own or with minimal support from other groups in your company:

  • VIP program invitations: If you have a VIP program already, invite them in. If you don’t–what are you waiting for? These are your VIPs. Treat them as such. Make some noise about admitting/nominating/anointing new people into the program, so that they feel special, and everyone else knows that they are. A good VIP program will have a recurring admission schedule, a special time when the new VIPs get announced. Make it like Xmas or some other holiday: the wait and suspense is half the fun, but there’s a great reveal at the end.
  • I have already mentioned callouts and public kudos. Costs you nothing, and gives everyone involved warm and fuzzies. And don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a cheap trick: heartfelt sincere gratitude never gets old. Remember, it’s your job to keep the community running; these folks don’t have to help you, yet they do. So thank them, and mean it.
  • Share responsibility. Invite top contributors to guest-post on your blog, make them moderators and user group leads, allow them to help you with things you wished you had bandwidth for, but never get around to doing: official schwag, curation of guest articles, even selection of the next generation of VIPs.
  • If you have a few hundred bucks lying around, you could try issuing physical trophies, or special schwag, such as backpacks or apparel. These work best if the people you want to honor are already in the same place, such as your annual user conference in Vegas. Rent a ballroom, buy some beer, and have an award ceremony for the creme de la creme. The effect diminishes if you have to mail the goodies, but you can have fun with asking the recipients to share photos of themselves with their trophies — on the forums or social media.
  • Speaking of annual user conferences: If you can beg, borrow, or steal some event passes for the VIPs to attend for free, you’ll be able to demonstrate that you put your money where your mouth is when you say “thank you.” You will have to convince the group running the conference to give you some passes, so prepare with good arguments of why they should miss out on revenue for your community people.
  • If you can’t get the free passes, maybe you can convince the organizers to allow you to reserve front-row seats in the general session for the VIPs. We’re back to zero-cost option here, and this may be a good fallback position. They still have to pay to attend, but get special treatment while there.
  • Now that you’re getting used to cajoling other groups in your company into giving you freebees, how about reaching out to the product group and asking for early access to information for your VIPs? Launching a product? You’ve got bloggers. Get them into an embargoed pre-launch briefing, set them up with the media kit, and they will write about your launch. At least some will. The rest will feel privileged to have been allowed into the inner circle.
  • Another cheap or no-cost thing to do is provide your superstars with exclusive access to internal people. It can be a dinner with the CEO at the aforementioned conference, or maybe a WebEx meeting with the product manager where they can share feedback.

As you see, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to show appreciation and recognize the people who make your community vibrant. What you will spend a lot of will be time: finding the right people, and finding the right rewards. But that is what true love is about: time you spend on them. Because they already spend a lot of time on you.

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Filed under Advanced, Reputation

Don’t gamify. Engage!

Don’t try to game your users into doing something you want. Instead, use meaningful achievement tracking to encourage community contribution and motivate personal growth.

Forum points are great as a motivator for some folks, particularly the ones who are good at answering questions. However leaderboards can also be extremely demotivating for newcomers. Someone just joining your community may see the huge gap between their reputation level and that of a seasoned participant as an insurmountable obstacle. This leaves you in a little bit of a bind: how to keep your top contributors motivated while also encouraging participation from new members?

It is tricky, if all you can track are forum interactions, and you can resort to using “top 10” lists for the hour or the day to give everyone a chance to see their name in the lights. Sure. That will work for some people: namely the same ones who were motivated by the points all along. They are the ones who already spend hours on the forum, ready to pounce on an unanswered question. Maybe an improved points system will reach a broader mass of them, but they do not make up the majority. This is why I believe that any points-based system will forever be lacking effectiveness.

It’s not all about points.

Let me rephrase that: It’s not at all about points. Points are just an easy way out. Quick, and seemingly fair. But does your community truly exist on the Q&A forums? What about bloggers, user group leads, dedicated customers who take your training and achieve professional certifications? What about makers of video tutorials, and curators of compatibility lists? How many points do they earn if they don’t post in the forum? Zero.

Is their contribution any less valuable? Or as their points status indicates, completely devoid of value? No.

So what do you do? How do you capture all the other stuff that is not just a Q&A binary?

It will take work. Years, probably, and still you’ll never be done.

And it will take support and buy-in from groups in your organization that you may never worked with before. Such as channel marketing and training. So this is not for the faint-hearted.

Tell you the truth, I have yet to finish building such a platform in the wild, but inside my head, it would look something like this:

  1. Create a system that captures behaviours online. Some automatically, and some, you should be able to capture manually. Each behaviour that you capture can be called an achievement, and you can view it as a LEGO block that you can make other things from.
    Example: Post on your blog about Linux. OR Give a presentation at your user group meeting.
  2. Those other things can be called quests or missions or whatever you like. You get to write the rules how each of these quests is completed: ten of the same achievement, or maybe any combination of ten achievements from the same “family” that fit together well.
    Example: Post about Linux once every month for 12 months completes the “Blogger” quest. OR Five blog posts, one magazine article, two public presentations, and a podcast complete the “Public Figure” quest.
  3. Make it more of an honor system than a rigid bureaucracy. Allow people to claim achievements, and periodically/sporadically audit. Community is good at sensing BS, so rely on self-policing and moderators more than bureaucratic enforcement, and you’ll be golden.
    Example: Allow me to claim my “blog post” achievement by simply logging in and submitting the blog post URL. Issue the achievement badge immediately, but also list the event in the activity feed for all to see. Have a red flag or other abuse reporting functionality built in, so that others can report fraudsters.
  4. Start with a small, well-defined scope. Don’t forget the forums! Find a way to translate all those points earned daily into achievements, so that everyone can benefit. Thankfully, forums already capture a lot of data, so just come up with a balanced system where forum activity won’t drown out the rest — because it’s that “rest” that you’re really creating the system for (see opening paragraphs).
  5. Once everyone is on board, and obligatory bugs, quirks, and ruffled feathers have been dealt with (remember, you are unseating the reigning elite here, so be prepared), you can begin adding achievements that are traditionally not viewed as “community” or “social-media” like. Professional training and certifications are an example. Same can be done for partner training and certified system integrators. You will find that many of these programs are very similar to a quest in your system. It may take completion of a number or classes and an exam to become a certified partner. In many cases, there is already a system tracking it, so what you’ll do is integrate it with your system, in a way that makes sense.
    This is a really tricky part, and will require that you work together and get buy-in from people who you may not usually work with. If your company is large, there will be many more players involved, and progress will be slow, but in the end, you will have a system of achievement and recognition that will capture more than just forum posts, and will therefore reward and elevate people who contribute to your community in a variety of different ways. And we all love variety, right?

One day, somewhere, I want a chance to build such a thing, and then my joy will be great. Until then, it’s going to remain a vision for me to aspire to with all the community work I do: build each piece in such a way that were there a chance to expand it into this sort of an all-encompassing rewards system, it would naturally fit. If nothing else, it ensures that I never lose sight of the big picture and the overarching goal of running a community program.

In closing, this is more of a visionary post than the usual hands-on guides that I have been posting here. I promise that the next one will be practical again.

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Filed under Advanced, Community management, Reputation

Does it have to be a forum?

While a forum can be an important part of a flourishing online community, there are other things you can do to provide more value to your users.

Community does not always equal forum, but forums are often part of that equation. Ideally, your community will have more than just forums, and here are a few ideas of what you can build. Some of these are hard, and some are easy, but all will add more value to your online community.

  • Community-supported reference lists
    It can be as easy as starting a wiki document with a table template and allowing your community members to add to the list, or you can go all-out and build a web application with a fancy UI and a database on the back end. The purpose is to provide your users with a place they can maintain reference information, such as hardware compatibility, supported drivers, regional resellers, retail locations, etc. To see which of these your community may like, read your forums and see if there’s a type of question that comes up all the time, e.g. “Who carries this brand in Wichita?” and then you’ll know.
  • User group infrastructure
    If your peeps want to form user groups, be a darling and give them a place to coordinate. It can be just a forum on your existing community platform, or something new, but the key is to give the users control of their groups and stay out as much as you can.
  • Betas
    They can be open to public, or invitation-only, but integrating your beta programs with your community efforts is always a good thing. Let’s say all your betas are non-public, which is often the case. Sifting through forums, you may find your most engaged users, and those who are very knowledgeable about a given product, so you may invite them to participate in your beta. As a result, they will feel special, and when the product comes out, they will have more in-depth knowledge to better help other users.
  • VIP program
    Speaking of special people, you should think of starting a VIP program. While this means that you’ll have to run a whole additional community on top of all the work than you already do, the payback in mindshare and good karma can be immense. By building a core of super-fans of your brand you invest in long-term evangelism. Often you don’t even have to do much more than recognize them in public and give them access to the people they respect inside your company. It would be better of course if you could run programs such as embargoed pre-launch briefings and focus groups with them, as well as provide discounts and exclusive opportunities to them. However, you’ve gotta start somewhere, and a little recognition goes a long way.
  • Customer advisory council
    Same as with VIP programs, listening to your customers may be one of the most powerful tools you have for increasing engagement and also just finding out what your users want to see from you in the future. Attaching that to your community will provide visibility to this program and even people who aren’t on the Council will feel like you are doing your homework and listening to your customers by just seeing that it is there. Of course, you would have to get buy-in from your R&D people to actually engage with the Council, or otherwise you’ll have a bunch of disgruntled influencers on your hands!
  • Influencer outreach
    And now that we’re talking about influencers, creating a special community program–be it a dedicated private forum or something more sophisticated–is also going to get you a lot of return on investment. Nurturing your relationships with key influencers is important, whether they like you or not. If someone hasn’t written a favourable review of your product yet, information-starving and excluding them will not change that. You will only be able to change your critic’s mind after you find out why they think your products suck. And you won’t find that out until you engage with them.
  • Community blogs
    Some people have their own blog, and some (like yours truly here) have multiple. Most people however don’t. Providing an opportunity to create a relevant blog on your community platform may convince some people to post their thoughts about your products and brand every so often. Starting a blog is like staring at a blank page: intimidating. When you have an opportunity to contribute to an existing blog aggregator, this barrier may be reduced. I can hear it already: “But what if they write something wrong? What if they write something negative?” If they are wrong, other community members will correct them. If they are negative–better they be negative in your “clean and well-lit place” where other people may respond with positive comments and endorsements, than somewhere else.
  • Community lists and aggregators
    Start creating and maintaining lists of social media profiles of the people you would like your community to follow: Twitter lists, blog aggregators, that sort of thing. If you are afraid people will get confused between the official and external content, maintain two of each: “Official corporate blogs” and “Community blog roll;” “Official Twitter list” and “Community twitter list.” You get the idea. Again, takes work, and you have to have a way to keep these lists tidy, but it pays off in higher visibility for the content you want to be noticed.

These are just a few ideas that you can incorporate. To answer the title question: No, it doesn’t always have to be a forum, but having one is usually a good start.

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Why do you need a community, anyway?

Aside from helping your users be successful with your solutions, you need to build a community for the conversations about your products and your brand to happen in a friendly civilized environment.

Since most of us work in corporate environments, it is not a far-fetched scenario where you get asked: “Explain to me, why do we even need to invest in building a community? Can’t we just have a good Knowledge Base and Support instead?”

If you only approach this question from the standpoint of helping your users with their technical questions, then you really don’t have an argument for deploying a user community platform. If you only want the community there to field questions, spending the money on hiring more technical writers and support agents will indeed bring you more bang for the buck.

However.

Once your product is out there for the world to see, conversations will start happening around it. People will talk about your brand and your products, and their experiences with them. There is nothing you can do to prevent this, and neither should you. Conversation is a good thing.

Just like in the olden days people made friends and invited them up for tea, creating an official space for your users to get together and have such conversations will get you good will from them.

What you (and your hypothetical question-asking colleagues) need to realize, is that your community exists independently of you. The moment you let people get their hands on your product, you have created a group united by their user experience. When you spin up a forums platform, all you do is give that user community a welcoming home, where you get to set the tone and rules of engagement.

If you don’t give them a home, they will go and talk about you on somebody else’s online forums, the conversation will become fragmented, questions will go unanswered, and frustration will build.

The “welcoming” part is also important.

You know the typical internet forum: full of snark, flaming, and other such things that leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Since you want your community forums to be a welcoming and professional place where people can have conversations undisturbed by trolls, some amount of benign control on your behalf is necessary and will be welcomed by the participants. As long as you only police the tone and not censor any negative comments or criticism, your efforts to keep the discussions clean will be supported, and when you are ready to recruit your volunteer moderators, they will have a clear example to follow.

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The Importance of Reputation in Online Communities

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel on importance of reputation in online communities. I was privileged to share the limelight with the most excellent community managers: Bill Platt of Engine Yard, Sean O’Driscoll of Ant’s Eye View, and Annie Fox of Buzznet. We were quite an unruly bunch, and almost gave our moderator Caroline Dangson a heart attack when we decided to have a drinking game on-stage. Some say, it was diluted Coke, but there are no guarantees. Enjoy.

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Why community management isn’t

When it comes to community, “management” is a misnomer. You don’t “manage” a community, you serve it.

When asked what I do for a living, I say “community management,” and cringe. For me, the term management implies a business-like approach, profit and loss, ROI, that sort of thing. Instead, I rather see myself as a mayor of my community.

Come to think of it, with just over a million registered users, I got myself a town to run, with moderators as the police force, web engineers helping with the town infrastructure, and all the different product groups setting up shop in the forums, to help the town inhabitants with their questions and problems.

Every morning, I read through my community notifications: moderators reporting spammers who need banning, new members asking for help finding information, maybe some bug reports for the engineers to fix. My resources aren’t unlimited, and most times I have to choose how to allocate them between regular maintenance work as well as upgrades and bug fixes.

Just like with a real-world town hall, I get requests from different groups for new features, and to raise priority of certain bugs that have been on the back burner for a while. And every once in a while I even get to be a judge in disputes between community members or vendors.

So all in all, I think this analogy stands up pretty nicely, so I will go ahead and stretch it out a little further.

In all languages that I know, the work that a city hall worker does is called a service of some kind. It is public service in English, öffentlicher Dienst in German, общественные услуги in Russian. Are you catching my drift? What I am saying here is that as a mayor of your online community you are less like a corporate manager, deciding between outsourcing jobs to off-shore and cutting local wages, and much more like a public servant, serving your little community and responding to its everyday needs.

Now with this “public servant” mindset, reasons for many of the popular “community management” failures become duh-obvious. Take my favourite pet peeve, the video contest. Just because Coca-Cola corporation is able to attract some brilliant submissions, doesn’t mean you will. And it’s not because your community is any less talented, although I suspect that computer engineers may not make best moviemakers, or they’d all quit their jobs in the datacenter and move to Hollywood. You will not get the videos out of them because that video is what you want, and not what they want. They are your townspeople, not your employees, and you cannot tell them what to do.

Same goes for any “engagement” efforts that have the goals of your company at the center, instead of the goals of the people that make up the community: share your story, photo, video, tell us how great our products are, for a chance to win a trip to our company event or an iPad. Initiatives like these treat the community members like workforce, and try to “pay” them with a prize that may not even be relevant to your company or product. If it’s a cool gadget, you may get a dozen submissions, but you will not inspire hundreds, and you will not make anyone feel like you are tuned into what is going on in your community. It will be perceived as soulless marketing, and that will be the end of that.

To have a community that is abuzz with cool people doing cool stuff, you have to keep your ear to the ground and your hand on the pulse of the town, and look for cool things that your community members are already doing. The moment you see a cool project in the making, swoop down and shower the person(s) in question with any kind of support you can provide, and don’t really ask for much in return. Just empower them and get out of their way.

That last bit about getting out of the way is very important too. You see local government supporting citizen initiatives all the time. Say, there’s an art project that got a grant. While a grant will often have clear guidelines as to what kind of art project will be sponsored, you won’t see the mayor actually picking up the paintbrush or donning a tutu to help. Once the grant recipient is picked, they can do as they please within the constraints of the grant.

As a result, the town gets a new mural or a dance performance, the starving artists get to stave off starvation for a while longer, and the mayor gets a happier community.

The sooner you realize that you are the one serving the community, and not managing it, the sooner you will stop stepping on the rake of artifice and begin having genuine engagement with people in your community.

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Community is not about you

If you only engage with your community for selfish reasons, you will fail, and it’ll serve you right.

You have forums, blogs, and social media channels at your disposal, and you even post fresh content at regular intervals, but your community is still withering on the vine. There are no comments on your blog posts, forums are full with the sound of crickets, and only spammers ever tweet at you.

What now?

While it may look like you are doing all the right things on surface, take a closer look at what you are actually posting in all the channels. Chances are, you will find that your blog is full of repurposed press releases and marketing copy, and that your tweets are pointing to general-purpose pages or promotional microsites that have flash animations but no meat to them.

Now ask yourself a question: What have you done to deserve your community’s attention? What have you given them that you expect their likes, and retweets, and shares?

It’s neat to sit at your desk all day creating campaigns, measuring engagement, and pulling sentiment reports. And all too often we focus so much on metrics that we forget that the only reason we have our jobs are our customers, and that in order to have a thriving community we have to serve it. In short, it is not about what you want, it’s about what your community wants.

People invented all the social technologies not for us to blast out our corporate messaging, but because they had a genuine need to share the stuff they care about with their friends, family, and colleagues. So give them the stuff they care about.

Give them access to documentation and the knowledge base — free and without a login. They liked your product enough that they are using it, and they need help with it, now is not the time to try their patience by putting up barriers. Next thing you know, someone will tweet a link to your KB article.

And make your user forums public for crying out loud. If some of your customers are engaged and generous enough to help others on the forum, use their generosity to your advantage. Build your site navigation to make it easy to jump from community area to official product pages (and back!), then use the power of SEO to bring in more traffic. Because no marketing copy is more relevant to the product than the customers actually talking about it on your forums. Your users get visibility and recognition and you get more readers and more participation. You might even preempt a support call or ten.

I have seen super active communities with a healthy ratio of about 1-2% posters out of hundreds of thousands unique visitors, most of whom arrive through organic search. Some of these uniques will convert to contributors, but don’t expect miracles. You won’t defeat the 90-9-1 rule, but you can remove the barriers to participation and increase the total audience.

The neat thing is that in the end, everybody wins. If you give your peeps what they want, they will return the favor in spades, and your metrics will look awesome.

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Filed under Community management